“And now you’re gonna believe us, we’re gonna win the league,” chanted the Leicester City supporters during the last 20 minutes at the Stadium of Light, unable to hide the joyous disbelief in their song. They’re surely right, too – nothing can stop Leicester now. They need nine points from their final five games to guarantee the Premier League title.
The end was far more enjoyable than the means for those Leicester fans who travelled up to Sunderland. Their side were again far below their season best, but it matters not. While everyone waits for Claudio Ranieri’s side to slip up, they continue to be the Premier League’s form side. Results are improving, not regressing.
For over an hour, this was a match more scrappy than Scooby Doo’s nephew. Both teams seemed fraught with nerves, aware of the importance of the fixture for very different reasons. Both resorted to direct, panicky football, unable or unwilling to put a foot on the ball amid the biting challenges.
The first half contained 54 clearances, nine more than in the entire match between West Ham and Arsenal on Saturday. The highest number of individual clearances in Saturday’s Premier League games was 14; Younes Kaboul made 13 before the break. He ended on 24, a season high. ‘Sunderland Leicester is as good a Premier League game as you’ll see’ tweeted the Independent’s chief sports reporter Ian Herbert at half-time, a fantastically generous assessment. “It’s like a Championship match,” said Graeme Souness on Sky Sports, a little more accurately.
Such games are won in individual moments of quality, and there was little surprise that it was the visitors who finally found that extra gear. Danny Drinkwater robbed Lee Cattermole deep in Leicester’s half, and his floated long pass dissected Sunderland’s defence to send Jamie Vardy clear. Vardy had gone six Premier League games without a goal, but finished exquisitely. He became the first Leicester City player to score 20 or more goals in a top-flight season since Gary Lineker in 1984/85.
In the last minute, Vardy had his second, muscling past Patrick van Aanholt before skipping past Vito Mannone. A Premier League record of five consecutive 1-0 victories had not been equalled, but Leicester are setting their own standards this season. It’s now eight hours and ten minutes since they conceded a goal.
If Leicester’s quality finally told, so too did Sunderland’s abject ability in front of goal. Sam Allardyce spoke before the game about his side’s low conversion rates, but if that was intended to inspire his players it had the opposite effect. Jack Rodwell’s late miss was the 90 minutes in microcosm, the groans from the stands provided the perfect commentary.
“We didn’t pass well, or create enough chances,” said Allardyce after the game. “Then we didn’t defend properly against the one thing we knew was coming.” Apart from that, a job well done.
If Rodwell’s miss was Sunderland’s most spectacular, Fabio Borini was the most guilty party. The Italian has moved for fees totalling £27m in his career, £1m for each of his career league goals. Six of those were in the Championship.
Borini’s afternoon was almost entirely miserable. He lost possession 23 times in 76 minutes, recorded a pass completion of 51.9%, had five shots of which only one was on target and got booked. His piece de resistance came when presented with an opportunity to shoot inside the penalty area. Borini managed to kick the ball into his own torso, an impressive – if misplaced – party trick.
But forget Sunderland’s misery for now, and think only of triumph. For Leicester, this is the dream that no amount of pinching can interrupt, yet another test passed. Eighteen of their 20 league victories have been achieved with less than 50% possession, but against Sunderland they were forced to dominate the ball and make the play. This was the exception to the rule from the club that is becoming known for exactly that. Ranieri was close to tears of joy after the full-time whistle.
Leicester City have now been behind in the Premier League for 47 minutes since the end of October. It’s an astounding statistic. Ranieri’s side are not limping their way to the title, but unearthing new ways to win at will.
They have wowed at the Etihad Stadium. They have dug in at White Hart Lane. They have dismissed Liverpool and Chelsea. They have ground it out at Watford, Crystal Palace and now Sunderland. They are on untrodden ground, and yet no team in the Football League is on a better run of form. They are Leicester City, and they are going to win the league. Now you’re gonna believe it.